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The Blame Frame: Justifying (Racial) Injustice in America


Jon D. Hanson


Harvard Law School

Kathleen Hanson


affiliation not provided to SSRN

January 6, 2006

Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Vol. 41, 2006
Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-47

Abstract:     
This Article attempts to elucidate how our forebears, who were presumably as devoted to justice and liberty in their times as we are in ours, failed to condemn behaviors that are today widely viewed as patently oppressive, unfair, and even evil.

Our argument unfolds in several Parts. Part II summarizes evidence from social psychology and related fields that helps explain how people who imagine themselves fair and just routinely blame the victims of inequities and excuse the perpetrators or passive observers through blame frames.

Because humans crave justice, salient suffering or inequalities activate an injustice dissonance within us. Too often, we alleviate that dissonance, not by addressing the injustice, but by creating an illusion of justice through assumptions, arguments, or stereotypes about the blameworthiness of the victim. Part II then describes three powerful blame frames that have coexisted, while alternating in dominance, throughout American history: the God frame, the nature frame, and the choice frame.

Part III elucidates through a few prominent examples how blame frames have operated throughout history to relieve our forebears' injustice dissonances and to perpetuate systems of oppression. The motivated attributions underlying those blame frames acted to legitimate laws, customs, and practices that today - with the benefit of hindsight and the lens of a new frame - are recognized as clearly unjust.

Part IV argues that we suffer an equally great confusion today, but the injustices that haunt our generation are soothed less by the God and nature frames and more by conceptions of choice. Choicism attributes disparities to the preferences and character of individuals and their groups. Although choicism purports to be colorblind and non-discriminatory, it is, unfortunately, just the latest cloak veiling racism and other groupisms while allowing us to blame victims and excuse non-victims. Part IV, by examining public reactions to Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, then shows how Americans experienced an unusually powerful and intractable injustice dissonance when the winds, water, and desperation exposed inequalities that choicism could not readily justify. For at least a moment, Americans faced what seemed to be strong evidence of racial injustice. Part IV reveals some of the ways that a set of overlapping and largely camouflaged blame frames obscured and confused the public discourse regarding Katrina and the injustice dissonance she wrought.

Finally, this Article argues that only by understanding the sources and effects of blame frames can we ever hope to end oppression and thereby live according to the fundamental values we espouse.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 69

Keywords: justifying injustice, race, blame frames, social psychology, American history, injustice dissonance, choicism, race card card, Katrina

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Date posted: August 9, 2008 ; Last revised: October 14, 2008

Suggested Citation

Hanson, Jon D. and Hanson, Kathleen, The Blame Frame: Justifying (Racial) Injustice in America (January 6, 2006). Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Vol. 41, 2006; Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-47. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1209742

Contact Information

Jon D. Hanson (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1563 Massachusetts
Griswold 403
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
607-496-5207 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/directory/facdir.php?id=25
Kathleen Hanson
affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )
Feedback to SSRN


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